A defining moment in every child’s life is the first time they read about Winnie the Pooh. It is a truly magical tale of a young boy named Christopher Robin who grew up in the beautiful landscape of the 100 Acre Woods with the best friends anyone could ask for. Among them was Pooh Bear who loved honey, Tigger who could never sit still, Piglet who symbolized innocence, and Eeyore who was constantly upset about his tail. The story written by A.A. Milne follows the journey of these characters as they encounter and overcome struggles, and is cherished by parents, children, and elders worldwide. In fact, it was named the most beloved children’s story by BBC news in 2014 and has sold over 20 million copies in 50 different languages [4, 5]. Upon first glance, it appears to be a simple story, pure in nature. However, a team of neurologists and psychologists at Dalhousie University have found that underneath the allure of the story lies troubled individuals with serious medical issues and psychosocial problems .
In fact, upon close examination, many of the characters in Winnie the Pooh meet the DSM criteria for a variety of mental illnesses. For example, Eeyore, the donkey, is always upset and never truly joining in with the rest of the group. He prefers to spend his time alone and dislikes seemingly fun activities. All of his pain appears to be centered around the traumatic loss of his tail. Furthermore, Eeyore does not have a permanent home and struggles to find a place to stay. He is what medical professionals and most people would recognize as depressed . In addition to this, he is homeless. Like so many of his fellow forest friends, he is in desperate need of assistance, such as therapy or medication, to improve his quality of life.
From this perspective, it is possible A.A. Milne had an underlying goal of promoting awareness of mental health and reducing the stigma surrounding it . He is not the only children’s writer who has conveyed this message. Other popular narratives such as Alice in Wonderland and Inside Out portray characters that appear on analysis to have deep socioeconomic and psychiatric issues. This depiction of mental health in media, especially children’s media, is becoming incredibly important. With nearly one in five adults and almost half of adolescents in the United States having a mental illness, it is crucial that all people realize it is okay to not be okay, ask for help, and take time to take care of themselves .
Currently, less than half of adults with mental illness seek treatment for fear of judgment or denial . Especially in American society, there is a deep-rooted notion that the mentally ill are dangerous and that it is not socially acceptable to need help . Stories and animations play an often overlooked yet crucial role in normalizing mental illness, especially at an early age and demonstrating that asking for help is worth it .
A paper published by a Harvard student in the Student Mental Health Research group observes the effectiveness of children’s stories. They note that animation has always been a key method of engaging children with their imaginations because it portrays situations that do not mirror reality. By creating characters that have mental illnesses without explicitly stating they do, allows students to primarily view them as characters in the new world they are exploring. They compare them equally and do not hold predetermined biases. In addition, animations allow viewers to simply judge based off of what they say versus what they look like, socioeconomic situations, or racial differences. Furthermore, in stories such as Winnie the Pooh, it highlights other factors that could be a result of or cause mental health issues such as traumatic events, financial status, or personal backgrounds . In this way, media creates an accurate picture of what it is like to experience a mental illness and how necessary it is to ask for help.
However, there is other research published in the Journal of Mental Health that suggests programming and media could promote stereotypes. The paper notes that the producers and writers create their stories based on already created biases. For example in many Disney films, characters are vilified for being “mad” or “crazy” . Specifically, in one New Zealand film, a boy walking down the street points to a man behaving strangely and says, “Crazy people are like dogs. If they see you’re afraid they attack.” In these cases, the false image of mental illness being portrayed is damaging and does not positively contribute to the preexisting negative culture .
Overall, it is clear that increased children’s media can deeply affect the way mental illness is viewed. However, the way it is rendered can drastically alter whether this change is positive or negative. It is essential that all productions do not follow stereotypical reasonings and strive to create a society where mental health is accepted. The current fearful and uncomfortable nature of the topic only serves to trap people who need help and prevent them from receiving the help they need. One day, humans might have a world opposite of the 100 Acre Wood, a place where people receive the help they need without judgment.